Court Denies Plaintiff’s Motion to Disqualify its Former Counsel as Counsel for Defendant in a Patent Litigation Action After Plaintiff Delayed Filing its Disqualification Motion for Over A Year After Discovering the Conflict.

In Eolas Technologies Incorporated v., Inc., 3-17-cv-03022 (CAND August 24, 2017, Order) (Tigar, USDJ) the United States District Court for the Northern District of California recently denied plaintiff Eolas Technologies Incorporated’s (“Eolas”) motion to disqualify its former counsel, Latham and Watkins (“Latham”), as counsel for defendant (“Amazon”) because Eolas delayed filing its disqualification motion for over a year after it learned of the potentially conflicting representation.  The Court further found Eolas waived its disqualification argument because the delay substantially prejudiced Amazon in its defense of Eolas’ patent infringement action against Amazon.

On November 24, 2015, Eolas filed a patent infringement action in the Eastern District of Texas against Amazon, asserting infringement by Amazon of U.S. Patent No. 9,195,507 (the “’507 patent”).  The ‘507 Patent relates generally to manipulating data in a computer network, and specifically to retrieving, presenting and manipulating embedded program objects in distributed hypermedia systems.  After the case was filed, Amazon moved to transfer the case to the Northern District of California, and, on April 28, 2017, that case was transferred.

At some point between 1998 and 2006, Latham attorneys represented Eolas in some capacity, and although the exact scope and duration of that representation is contested, Eolas claimed that “Latham was privy to all of Eolas’ proprietary and confidential information relating to its technology, patents, patent applications, business, litigation and licensing strategies, particularly those relating to the ‘906” patent, which is the parent to the ‘507 patent-in-suit.  As a result, Eolas argued Latham must be disqualified from representing Amazon because “Amazon’s defense is predicated on attacking [the ‘906 patent,] the very patent that Latham once competed to assert and later defended, and about which Latham has acquired substantial confidential and strategic information.”

As a preliminary matter, the Court first had to decide whether Texas or California law governed.  As noted, the case was originally filed in the Eastern District of Texas, as was the motion to disqualify, but the case was transferred to the Northern District of California before a decision on the motion issued.  Amazon argued that Texas law still governed.  Eolas argued that California law now applies.  The Court held that it should apply Texas law when analyzing the motion to disqualify because when Latham agreed to represent Amazon, the case was pending in the Eastern District of Texas and Latham would have been correct to expect that Texas ethical codes would apply to any motion to disqualify.  The Court then reasoned that the same law should apply now because “[a] change of venue under § 1404(a) generally should be, with respect to state law, but a change of courtrooms.”  Thus, the Court applied Texas law to the motion to disqualify.

Moving on to the substance of the motion, the Court first noted that under Texas law, “[w]aiver of a motion for disqualification of counsel is proper where the delay in moving for a disqualification is for an extended period of time, or where it is done on the eve of trial.”  However, there was a factual disagreement about when Eolas discovered Latham’s alleged conflict.  Eolas claimed that, until January 6, 2017, “nobody at Eolas knew that Latham was representing Amazon.”  Amazon, on the other hand, asserted that Eolas had known that Latham represented Amazon a year earlier, by January 2016.

The Court sided with Amazon.  Specifically, the Court noted that Latham had appeared in the case for Amazon in January 2016, and that this appearance was recognized by Eolas’ counsel.  Under Texas law, an attorney’s knowledge is imputed to a client, in this case Eolas.  The Court also noted that Eolas knew that it had previously retained Latham, including for work related to the ‘906 patent.  Therefore, the Court found Eolas knew about the Latham conflict for a year before it decided to file its motion to disqualify, and that one year qualifies as an extended delay.

The Court also found that Amazon would face substantial prejudice from Latham’s disqualification.  The Court noted that in 2016 – the year during which Eolas knew of the alleged conflict but took no action – Latham billed over 3,400 hours to defend that action and prepare the matter for trial.  The Court found this large expenditure of time and resources weighed in favor of waiver.  Thus, the Court concluded that Eolas waived its right to seek disqualification by waiting one year after discovering Latham’s conflict to file its motion, and denied the motion to disqualify Amazon’s counsel.

This case is a good reminder to timely raise all issues and potential challenges.  Otherwise, if clients and their counsel delay to long after having been found to be aware of the issue or potential challenge, a court may find it to have been waived and/or unfairly prejudicial to the other party given the delay.